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Creative, Inc.: The Ultimate Guide to Running a Successful Freelance Business

Creative, Inc.: The Ultimate Guide to Running a Successful Freelance Business

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Creative, Inc.: The Ultimate Guide to Running a Successful Freelance Business

3.5/5 (31 ratings)
229 pages
3 hours
Jul 1, 2010


As the hipster classic Craft, Inc. did for crafters, this book will teach all types of creatives illustrators, photographers, graphic designers, animators, and more how to build a successful business doing what they love. Freelancing pros Meg Mateo Ilasco and Joy Deangdeelert Cho explain everything from creating a standout portfolio to navigating the legal issues of starting a business. Accessible, spunky, and packed with practical advice, Creative, Inc. is an essential for anyone ready to strike out on their own.
Jul 1, 2010

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Creative, Inc. - Joy Deangdeelert Cho



Freelancing is a leap of faith. Announce to your friends and family that you’re quitting your day job to freelance and it’s unlikely that congratulations will come from every angle. For the more traditional types (read: Mom and Dad), the idea of turning down a steady paycheck to pursue a career doing what many would consider just a creative hobby sounds like a risky venture. To others, the word freelance conjures romantic images of Carrie Bradshaw types waiting for assignments as they sip decaf caramel machiatos at the corner cafe. While there may be truth to both viewpoints, the reality of creative freelancing is that it gives you the unique opportunity to put your individual talents to work and earn a living while you’re at it. Enjoying what you do for a living doesn’t have to be an idle dream.

As the new kid to freelancing, you will learn the rules of the playground and the pitfalls to avoid. Whether you’re a designer, illustrator, animator, stylist, photographer, or other creative, we’ll show you how to set up your business, promote your work, find and work with clients, set your fees, acquire an agent, and handle your bookkeeping. We’ll also get into the nitty-gritty of partnering, balancing your personal and work life, and what to do when things are going so well that you have to expand your business. From the interviews of the experienced self-employed creatives in this book, you’ll learn about freelancing directly from the source, discovering that the journey to being a successful freelancer begins differently for everyone. Some have degrees from art school, while others cultivated their education on their own. Some start by accident, others out of sheer drive, while still others find freelancing as the silver lining in an otherwise adverse situation, such as a layoff. Through it all, though, you’ll learn lessons through their hiccups and victories.

Freelancing is by no means a quick and easy pursuit. More than likely, you’ll be going at it alone, which means making decisions on your own. But there are certainly advantages to being autonomous. You can change the characteristics of your business at a moment’s notice and turn down unappealing assignments when they just don’t fit. But be clear with yourself about the reasons you’re getting into freelancing. If you’re leaving your day job because it’s too much work or too stressful, be aware that freelancing may require even more hours and carry even greater pressure. Switching from a steady job to a work life filled with new clientele and unexpected (often daily) changes can be daunting. Fortunately for you, we’ll prepare you for this new lifestyle and warn you about potential stumbling blocks and how to overcome them.

All this raises the question Why put myself through the stress of starting and running my own business? The answer is a matter of payoff. Making your passion pay is a gamble—but the greater the stakes, the greater the rewards, both financially and creatively. Though you’ll probably be working more hours than ever, you’ll work with artistic freedom on a larger variety of projects than you’d probably have if you were on staff somewhere, and you’ll have the potential to earn more money with every commission. You’ll soon see why people who become freelancers would use the word liberating to describe a career move that does not immediately produce a bigger paycheck. Surely, as your client base grows, more money will come. But for passionate freelancers, money isn’t the only goal. It’s the happiness derived from a sense of purpose and the excitement that comes with the challenges of every new project. Freelancing takes vision, dedication, hard work, organization, business savvy, and, of course, a true love of your art. In this book, we’ll give you the guidance you need to turn your creative skills into a full-fledged freelance career. In time, you’ll become a part of a rare group of people whose career represents a creative extension of themselves, who never have a case of the Mondays, and who haven’t looked back since taking the freelance leap.

Chapter 1: Introduction to Creative Freelancing

Do you ever wonder where your talents would take you if you put just as much effort (if not more) into working for yourself as you do working for someone else? If testing your creative potential has crossed your mind, it’s likely that freelancing could be that change you’ve been searching for. Freelancing offers you the opportunity to shape your career however you like. You can choose your clients, how much you want to work, what type of work to do, and how much to charge. Freelancing means you’ll no longer be clocking in hours for the Man; you’ll be turning your art into a full-time career and working for the best boss of all, You. In this chapter you’ll find out the qualities you need to succeed and determine whether the creative freelancing lifestyle is for you.

What Is Creative Freelancing?

We define creative freelancer as someone who is a self-employed subcontractor offering her creative services to buyers. Typically a solitary practice, creative freelancing can be a group effort as well: whether a group of colleagues or a husband-and-wife team, freelancers can band together as a collective or form a partnership. However you do it, creative freelancing requires you to step up to the dual challenge of producing effective visual communications and managing a business. Remember, just because you are embarking on an artistic career without suits and ties, or even walls, that doesn’t mean you should use your newly found freedom to operate your venture on the fly. To succeed, you have to manage your freelance business with the same level of seriousness as that of a corporate CEO. You simply can’t rely on your talents alone. You need to know as much about managing a business as you do about your art. Luckily, you’ll find everything you need to get started here.

Nine Qualities of a Successful Freelancer

How do you know if you’re freelance material? It’s a vocation that’s not for everyone. You need to be self-motivated, self-reliant, organized, confident, and an effective communicator. You may not possess all these characteristics right now, but with practice and a little discipline you can certainly develop them and be on your way to freelance success.

01 Strong business sense

Creative freelancing is not just about producing good work. It’s essential to develop a strong business acumen as well. There’s enough ego and talent coursing through the creative world for even the most gifted artist to get lost in the crowd. The ones who flex their business muscle become the most identifiable and successful. Even though you’ll have more freedom than the typical nine-to-fiver, freelancing carries all the responsibilities of an independent business, including marketing, accounting, and office management. When you’re running a business, you’ll find yourself having to make many solo decisions at any given point, so you’ll have to be a confident decision maker. You will also need self-motivation and resourcefulness to maintain your own schedule and provide structure to your workday—qualities that will come in handy when you’re chasing down payments from clients!

02 A love of your art

Maybe your career has been moving along briskly at a motion-graphics firm, but the road ahead holds little appeal and autonomy is the only move that makes sense. Maybe you took illustration gigs during college, and with graduation around the corner you’re ready to make a full-time go of it. Or maybe you were laid off, and this misfortune has presented an opportunity to make an exciting change. However you came to the decision to freelance, one thing is certain: you have to be passionate about what you do. Ask yourself these questions: Would freelancing excite you enough to get you out of bed in the morning? Would you mind sometimes burning the midnight oil to finish a project? Could you be happy turning your creative outlet into your main source of income? If you’re drawn to freelancing mainly because of the lifestyle, the lure of authorship, or the potential for fame, you’ll likely become frustrated and burn out quickly when success doesn’t happen overnight. A successful freelancer is passionate about his art and seeks inspiration to fuel it—even in his off-duty hours—simply for the sake of generating work that he loves.

03 Curiosity

Because you’re a visual auteur and an idea person, your curiosity has probably gotten you to where you are right now. Curiosity keeps your mind primed as a creative tool, keeps you open to new ways of working and looking at things. Truth be told, though, the more you become an expert in your field, the less time you’ll have to step outside it and engage with the rest of the world. This disconnect can affect how you deal with people or approach problems. That’s why you need to continue to make an effort to stay curious and connected: read newspapers and books, watch documentaries and movies, and attend cultural events, to name a few. Whether you’re a film director or graphic designer, at some point you’ll probably be assigned a project dealing with subject matter you’re not familiar with. If you’re an illustrator hoping to land your artwork in the New York Times or any other news outlet, you should be fully aware of current events so that you can tackle a news-related illustration with ease. The more diverse your experiences and interests, the stronger your ability to come up with ideas and translate your client’s needs into a successful piece of work.

04 Confidence and a strong vision

A strong freelancer does much more than simply execute the instructions of an editor or art director. If you let the client dictate the entire project through a paint-by-numbers program, you’ll feel like a trained art monkey. You must have the confidence to suggest your own ideas and bring your voice into the conversation. This type of creative bravura doesn’t mean that an in-your-face personal style should dominate every project. Success will most likely come with a fine balance between articulating your vision and taking into account your client’s needs. To earn a living, you won’t always get to pick and choose commissions that allow you to express 100 percent of your creative vision. And that’s okay. When you need an outlet for that self-possessed creative energy, take it upon yourself to initiate personal projects that reflect your particular style. As you add more of these personal designs to your portfolio, you’ll start attracting clients eager for your specific point of view.

05 Good listening and observational skills

In the service world, the customer is king. Though you may have a strong vision, operating on the credo Do whatever you want, when you want will do nothing to serve your client. Remember that, to stay in business, you’ll need to please your client before pleasing yourself. But, as we outlined in the preceding section, you’ll need to be receptive to your client’s needs without letting the client run all over you. With keen observational and listening skills, you’ll find a vision that satisfies both you and your client. The more you understand the client’s point of view and what they’re hoping to achieve, the wider the net you can cast to solve the problem. In fact, creative epiphanies are more likely to happen when there is complete understanding. Plus, clients will respect you more when they feel you clearly understand their needs, and that is key to developing a strong relationship. Despite the surplus of talent available, buyers like working with freelancers they know and trust. If you are talented, and you’re a good listener and an agreeable person, it’s likely you will be commissioned for future jobs.

06 Good communication skills

When it comes to working with clients, you cannot rely on visuals as your sole mode of communication. In the ideation phase, before proper visuals are available, it’s essential for you to inspire and persuade your client with words, whether written or in conversation. The same goes for working with clients who may not be visually literate in your field. Oftentimes, clients don’t know exactly what they are buying or what they want until it’s delivered. So you’ll need to be able to articulate your artistic vision and direction. Throughout the process, it is critical to understand and explain why you took a certain approach. If a customer questions your approach, you should be able to say, I feel that this is the right direction, and here’s why.

07 An ability to handle criticism and rejection

It happens to all of us. Even the most established creative freelancers have produced work that doesn’t quite meet their client’s expectations. Your work won’t always be a slam-dunk, so be ready to digest less-than-enthusiastic reviews sometimes. In an intensely competitive arena, all freelancers are bound to encounter rejection—from agents, clients, and even peers they may turn to for feedback. Hearing criticism isn’t always easy. You’ll need to thicken your skin and remember that it’s business—not a personal attack. Your client needs to put his or her business agenda first. It may take some time, but a successful freelancer eventually learns to take criticism and turn it into a result that pleases the client. Getting to that point in your career may require some sweat and tears, but it will make each victory all the more meaningful.

08 A positive attitude and professional demeanor

A good attitude is priceless when you are running your own business. It’s important to handle every job, whether small or large, with joie de vivre. Whether you’re interacting with clients or vendors or simply reflecting on a challenge, a negative attitude won’t make anything any better. Clients don’t respond well to people who get easily upset or let unexpected situations ruin their day. And remember, mistakes are part of the discovery process. So do your best to stay positive, no matter what unexpected problems arise.

09 Good work habits

Good work habits lead to better work, and better work leads to more projects and more clients. If organization has never been your strong point, it’s time for a change. If you work from home, turn off the TV and keep personal interests like surfing the Internet, listening to the news, or reading magazines to a minimum. Stay focused on business by making a list of tasks to accomplish every day. And clients appreciate quality work that is done quickly, so challenge your efficiency: try to beat the deadline by completing a job in five days instead of eight. As a freelancer, you have to be self-motivated, because only you can set the bar for your skill and output.


If you’re worried because you don’t have an art degree, fret not. There’s no doubt you’ll need a sharp creative eye and training in mechanical skills—whether that means learning your way around a 3-D modeling program, mastering a digital SLR camera, or tackling Adobe Premiere Pro—to become a creative freelancer. But how you acquire those skills is not as important as your talent and execution. So whether your education comes from a well-known art school or online camera tutorials, it should have no bearing on your success as a freelancer. Many successful freelancers, including a few profiled in this book, are self-taught. Your artistic portfolio is the equalizer, and it counts for far more than pedigree does. Certainly there are benefits to enrolling in a structured academic program, such as a well-rounded education, not to mention contacts and recommendations from your fellow students and professors. However, with an accurate assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, you can educate yourself in your field, taking classes or reading books in the areas where you need to improve. You can also duplicate the camaraderie found at school by immersing yourself in online communities of like-minded creatives through blogs, forums, and social networking sites.

Preparing for Freelancing

Once you make the decision to freelance, it’s likely you’ll want to start immediately. But before you march into your boss’s office with a resignation letter, it’s essential that you gather as much information as possible to set yourself up for success. Preparation is everything. There are plenty of things you can do to lay the groundwork while

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What people think about Creative, Inc.

31 ratings / 7 Reviews
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  • (3/5)
    I skimmed through this one, since it dealt mostly with artists, but it had some good ideas for freelancers in general too.
  • (3/5)
    I only got about halfway through this book, but not because it's bad - it's just not relevant to my life. I'm sure the freelancing advice is excellent, but most of the interviews are with photographers, graphic designers, and illustrators, fields I know (and care) next to nothing about. Don't get me wrong: the writing is friendly and the content is organized well. I just don't particularly enjoy reading books about business management, even those tailored to artsy people. Simply put, I am not a member of this book's target audience.
  • (4/5)
    This is a very accessible book on running a freelance business for creatives. If you're a student, it gives you the practical information that you need to start out and deal with clients (or, really, for anyone starting out). I do some freelancing work but this year I would like to start selling some of my jewelry so I am going to take a look at this book's sibling, Craft, Inc. since this book was so well written and useful.
  • (5/5)
    This book couldn’t have come into my life at a better time. I had been thinking about doing some freelance writing and was wondering where to start. I googled “freelance writing” and got so many results I was overwhelmed. The very next day, LT notified me that I won Creative, Inc for review! Rather than a book that you read in a linear fashion, cover-to-cover, this timely resource is something to be dipped into over time. I appreciate all of the step-by-step checklists, sample invoices, how to know when to get a partner, hire an agent, offer an internship, or, quit. The profiles of real-life successful freelancers are extremely helpful too – they’ve been there and done that!I’m keeping this book close at hand, not shelved somewhere hidden, so I can keep flipping open to passages when I’m feeling the “freelancing need”, so to speak. After reading Creative, Inc, I realize that I’m not quite ready to start up my own business, but I’ve learned so much about what to do (and not to do) that I’m just filing things away, waiting until the time is right.Thank you, Meg Mateo Ilasco and Joy Deangdeelert Cho, for making such a great freelancing resource!
  • (4/5)
    When my sister and I run the world, all college students, no matter their chosen field, will take a basic business course as part of the mandatory freshman curriculum. Having zero business skills is a good way to invalidate any degree. In the freelance world, there’s much more to staying financially afloat than having all the necessary skills to pull off excellent work.Creative, Inc. is a crash course in business for creative folk, and it’s refreshing to read authors who don’t pretend starting a freelance business is simple. It’s not. Authors Mateo Ilasco and Cho hit every key point a person needs to build a start-up creative business, including a superb mix of practical advice and personal success stories.With well-rounded advice for beginning freelancers, even those who’ve already leapt into freelancing will find help navigating the dark waters of taxes, billing, finding clients, and other business practicalities. Written in a neighborly tone, you’ll find solid, practical advice from the authors, who tackle issues like establishing your hourly rate and hiring employees from an educated perspective. Author interviews with a range of seasoned professionals — from prop stylist to designer to photographer — offer alternate views on how to get started and what worked for them.The spirit of invention is only one ingredient in a successful business venture. Drive counts more than your skillset and talent level. If you’re already motivated, Creative Inc. offers everything else you’ll need to begin freelancing full time.
  • (5/5)
    This book is a terrific read for ANYONE interested in getting a freelance business started. While it's geared towards people heading into a creative arena, I shared many pieces of information with a mechanic starting his own business and he found it was helpful too! Overall, it the book was matter-a-fact (you have to plan, expect to work hard and may have some set backs) while being very optimistic too. The book helps to make something that seems like an impossible task more manageable by sharing the experiences and advice from other people who are successful freelancers.
  • (4/5)
    I received this book through the Early Reviewers program. It is a how-to guide for starting a freelance business in a creative field, such as design or writing. First, the book is very attractive. It reminds me of a Moleskine notebook, with heavy paper and a stiff binding, and it is printed in different colors, which makes it fun to riffle through. You could even take notes in it if you wanted. The chapters cover all the bases of starting a freelance business, although not in a lot of depth. I particularly liked the interviews with different kinds of freelancers, which provide a real-world view of the industry, and the example forms, such as the estimate and invoice forms. Although I didn't read this cover to cover -- it's not that kind of book -- it seems like a useful reference that I will want to keep on my shelf for a long time.